Europe’s Rising Islamophobia

Europe’s Rising Islamophobia

What makes it so lethal is that it has broad appeal—from the far left to the far right.



With inspiring scenes of the Arab Spring on television for months, one might have expected images of democratic revolutions to punch a hole in the crude anti-Muslim stereotypes of Europe’s Islamophobes, those politicians and intellectuals who swear that Islam is totalitarian to its core. And if this alone didn’t dispel clichés of a monolithic, violent religion, then surely the vox pop of diaspora Egyptians, Tunisians and others on the nightly news—university students, women who head NGOs and children alongside their native French or German peers—would have demonstrated the diversity and integration of Muslim Europeans, something study after study documents.

To the contrary, in recent elections Islamophobes like France’s right-wing National Front and the anti-EU True Finn Party racked up their best numbers ever, the latest strides in a surging movement that is recasting the political landscape of Western Europe. These elements have every reason to thank mainstream politicians, who, in the hope of exploiting the phenomenon for their own gain, have paved the way for the far right. In April, for example, France’s ridiculous “burqa ban” went into effect with overwhelming popular support, while EU leaders pushed the panic button over Tunisian refugees landing in Italy and Malta, turning the image of peaceful revolutionaries across the Mediterranean into one of an impoverished mob besieging Fortress Europe.

What makes anti-Muslim racism so lethal is that unlike populisms of the past, Islamophobia has broad appeal across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right and irrespective of class or educational level. Where it manifests itself in electoral parties, such as in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and now even Sweden and Finland, its advocates fare much better than old-school far-right parties ever did, with their vulgar anti-Semitism and expansionist fantasies. There is nevertheless plenty of overlap with the extreme right, which inscribes anti-Islam thinking prominently in its manifestos and is thriving on the new discourse; never before have so many of its representatives been so close to the levers of power in so many Western European countries.

Islamophobia is solidly mainstream; there is no politically correct taboo against it, as there is with overt racism or other strains of xenophobia. In fact, some of Europe’s highest-profile Islamophobes justify their attacks on Islam and Europe’s Muslims in the name of women’s and gay rights. Conservative, liberal and even leftist parties tap into it, partly out of opportunism and partly out of conviction. Invoking secularism and Enlightenment values, some centrists and leftists propagate a cultural racism that instead of using skin color imputes immutable characteristics to cultures and assigns them a hierarchy, with Western civilization at the top. This is Islamophobia, which functions just as racism does, and serves the purposes of those who have long sought to stem immigration, keep Turkey out of the European Union and secure a white Christian Europe.

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Not every European country has anti-Muslim parties as successful as two of Islamophobia’s poster boys, the Dutch Freedom Party and the Danish People’s Party, both of which put the clash of cultures and the Islamic menace at the center of their programs. Yet these cases are instructive, because they represent a new generation of the European right, and the conditions of their rise exist across Western Europe. Surveys and opinion polls, for example, indicate that anti-Muslim sentiment in Holland and Denmark is about the same as in most other Western European countries. In one recent study, between 34 and 37 percent of French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danes say they have a negative opinion of Muslims. In Germany the figure is 59 percent.

The Dutch Freedom Party is a one-man outfit led by 47-year-old Geert Wilders, immediately recognizable by his wavy mane of platinum-blond hair. Since October the party has been an unofficial partner in the center-right governing coalition (it has no cabinet seats, but it can dictate terms to a minority government that ultimately needs its votes). In the Netherlands, previously renowned for its tolerance, Wilders’s party more than doubled its numbers last year, to 16 percent of the electorate, on a platform to stop the “Islamization of the Netherlands.” The party pledged to halt immigration from “Muslim countries,” to tax women wearing headscarves and to ban the Koran as well as the construction of mosques. Wilders blames the easygoing model of Dutch multiculturalism for exposing the Netherlands to Islam, and thus for undermining the very tolerance it naïvely extended to Muslim peoples. Over the past two years he has consistently polled as one of the country’s most popular politicians, despite being put on trial on charges of inciting hatred against Muslims (the case is ongoing).

As for the Danish People’s Party, it has worked hand-in-hand with the country’s center-right government since 2001. The party—one leading MP likens the hijab to the swastika—took 15 percent of the vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections and is now Denmark’s third-biggest party. Its guiding light, Pia Kjaersgaard, originally belonged to one of Denmark’s establishment parties, as Wilders did in the Netherlands. Unlike the old right, with its blood-and-soil chauvinism and anti-Semitism, new rightists like Kjaersgaard couch their nationalism as a defense of Western civilization and even “Judeo-Christian values.” One of her quotes: “Not in their wildest imagination would anyone [in 1900] have imagined that large parts of Copenhagen and other Danish towns would be populated by people who are at a lower stage of civilization, with their own primitive and cruel customs like honor killings, forced marriages, halal slaughtering, and blood-feuds. This is exactly what is happening now…. [They] have come to a Denmark that left the dark ages hundreds of years ago.”

In both countries the governments have caved in to Islamophobes by dramatically tightening immigration requirements for non-Westerners. The once proudly open-minded Denmark now has the strictest such laws in Europe. “I’m certain that soon many other countries will copy us,” boasted the People’s Party after the November passage of a law it co-wrote. The opposition Social Democrats, though fiercely split on the issue, ended up backing the bill as well. Their rationale: to stop forced marriages and protect ethnic minority women from family pressure, as if immigration restrictions would accomplish either. All such talk from centrist parties does is perpetuate prejudices: in this case, that forced marriage is the rule in Muslim European families, which is simply not true.

The Netherlands and Denmark, like most of Western Europe, have significant numbers of foreign-born immigrants and second-generation inhabitants from Arabic or majority-Muslim countries. (Many have Turkish backgrounds and—as with many Bosnians, Moroccans and Iraqis—may or may not practice Islam. But thanks to the new discourse, which conflates ethnicity with religion, they’re all called Muslims.) These communities make up 5 and 4 percent of their populations, respectively (3.2 percent is the European Union average), and have a positive birthrate, in contrast with sagging demographics across almost all of traditionally Christian Europe, a trend that has Islamophobes sounding the alarm bells. It is also the case—though the root causes are hotly disputed—that segments of these minorities are poorly integrated, unemployment among them is higher than the national average and 1 to 2 percent hold radical views.

Even in EU countries that don’t have growing anti-Muslim parties, Islamophobic sentiment is potent. In Germany, for example, one survey after another attests to widening hostility directed at the Muslim population and Islam in general. One recent study showed 58 percent of Germans in favor of restricting religious freedom for Muslims. This included more than
75 percent of those in eastern Germany, where the Muslim population is negligible. Thirty-seven percent of Germans feel the Federal Republic would be better off “without Islam.” The surveys underscore the steady rise of these sentiments since 2004, with a significant jump from 2009 to 2010. They also show that while attitudes are particularly strong in traditional right-wing milieus, they have also become more pronounced in the middle and upper classes and among Germans with higher education. They also reveal that anti-Muslim feelings are far stronger than homophobia, classic racism, sexism or anti-Semitism—the latter long the measure for illiberal thinking in Germany.

This mainstreaming of Islamophobia would have been inconceivable without the post-9/11 anti-Muslim discourse in European media; Islamophobic websites like Germany’s Bürgerbewegung Pax Europa and Politically Incorrect have tens of thousands of visitors a day. In large part the trail was blazed by intellectuals, a surprising number of whom had roots in progressive politics. Hugely influential was the late Italian writer Oriana Fallaci, whose bestselling books insisted that Islam is a thoroughly violent and totalitarian creed striving for world domination. The former antifascist partisan and left-wing journalist once likened the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Others include French writer and activist Bernard-Henri Levy (“the veil is an invitation to rape”), British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis, Dutch intellectual and Labor Party member Paul Scheffer, and in Germany such figures as Ralph Giordano, Necla Kelek, Alice Schwarzer and Henryk Broder, all leftists or former leftists of one stripe or another. Schwarzer, for example, is the mother of Germany’s feminist movement, and with her flagship quarterly EMMA she has fought for women’s liberation since the early 1970s. She denounces Islam as misogynistic and misanthropic, accusing it—and those who defend it—of betraying the universality of human rights. For her, and for many other critics of Islam, “tolerating” the religion means tolerating forced marriages, honor killings, burqas, female genital mutilation and polygamy. Schwarzer now argues for measures that conservatives and the far right have pursued for decades. In the past it was coalitions comprising liberal intellectuals, feminists and Christian churches that waged fierce opposition to such legislation.

Where the new right parties aren’t surging, centrist politicians take on much of the anti-Muslim baggage. It wasn’t, for example, right-wingers who passed the burqa bans in France and Belgium but liberal and mainstream conservative parties, backed by the left. In France, some Socialists and Communists joined President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling party in voting for the recent ban of the full veil in public, a law proposed by a Communist mayor from southern France (the Greens abstained, fearful of the repercussions of a no vote). Polls showed 80 percent of French voters in favor of the ban.

In contrast to the conservative parties’ thinly veiled racism, the left’s anti-Muslim reaction is an anticlerical stance, a kind of dogmatic secularism that sees religion as nothing more than the opiate of the masses. Its inability to grasp that Islam is a source of identity for many European Muslims and, more important, to debunk racist Islamophobia plays straight into the hands of political foes, including the churches (which come off as benevolent compared with en vogue caricatures of Islam). By branding Islam as something qualitatively different from and much more dangerous than other religions, the left helps to stigmatize it further—and lets Christianity off the hook.

As John Mullen of France’s radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste explains, “The majority of the left in France believe that the hijab is an assault on women’s rights. This position quickly moves into the prejudice that Muslim women in France are more oppressed than non-Muslim women, that the experience of women in, say, Saudi Arabia is merely an extreme case of an oppression which is inherent in Islam.” He and other NPA activists protested the party’s reluctance to allow Ilham Moussaïd, a secular, French-born, prochoice feminist, to run as a candidate because she wears a headscarf. Twelve eventually quit. Says Mullen: “Muslim and Arab men are then presented as the major source of women’s oppression and contrasted with the progressive white values of Republican France. So opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism.”

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In Germany the issue burst into the political sphere only last year, with the publication of Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany Does Away With Itself”), by Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democrat, an economist on the board of Germany’s Central Bank and a former Berlin councilman. In it he argues that Muslims are “unwilling” and “unable” to integrate; that Muslim immigrants sponge off the welfare systems; that because of their higher birthrate they will soon outnumber indigenous Germans; and that immigration (from the wrong parts of the world) undermines Germany’s “cultural identity” and “national character.” He writes, “I don’t want the country of my grandchildren and great grandchildren to be largely Muslim, or that Turkish or Arabic will be spoken in large areas, that women will wear headscarves and the daily rhythm is set by the call of the muezzin.” Unlike much of the cultural anti-Muslim sentiment in the media, Sarrazin’s book explicitly mixes race into the blend, arguing that “Muslim genes” are somehow inferior to German ones.

Though Sarrazin’s book certainly wasn’t the first anti-Muslim tract published in Germany, it was the first by a mainstream politician. It unexpectedly surged to the top of the bestseller list, where it remains today. While controversy over the book forced him to leave the Central Bank, it made the sullen, gray-haired economist Germany’s favorite talk-show guest and a multimillionaire. Fortunately, Sarrazin is not a movement leader and has no ambition to start his own party. An explicitly anti-Muslim right-wing movement, Pro Deutschland, has emerged recently, but it has yet to kindle broad-based enthusiasm, perhaps because the established parties are soaking up its potential.

The Sarrazin affair illustrated just how deep-seated Islamophobia has become in Germany. At first, the country’s leading politicians responded by roundly condemning the author. But once polls emerged showing that every party’s constituency believed that Sarrazin “gets some things right,” many critics backed off. The Social Democrats balked at expelling him (an investigation is under way), and party members as esteemed as former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, one of the fathers of the Federal Republic, praised Sarrazin’s candor. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, said “the multiculturalism experiment” has “failed,” and the leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union said it was high time to stop immigration from alien cultures. Although Germany’s Left Party condemned the Sarrazin theses, one poll showed that 29 percent of the party’s voters would be sympathetic to a Sarrazin-led party, the highest result of all the parties (Left Party voters are overwhelmingly eastern German, secular and consider themselves socialists).

Critically, Germany’s political elite is divided over the issues posed by Islam and Muslims. Almost every party—with the exception of the Greens, whose members poll lowest for Islamophobia—has prominent representatives who are hostile to Islam as well as those who speak out for tolerance. For example, Germany’s president, Christian Democrat Christian Wulff, underscored in a major address this year that “Islam now too is part of Germany,” an enormous step forward in making the country’s 4 million Muslims feel at home. And Merkel has made great strides in modernizing the Christian Democrats, including the initiation of the Islam Conference, a forum for dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. But conservatives have long fought for tighter immigration laws and still defend the idea of a Christian Europe, for example in their adamant opposition to Turkish EU membership. For some, anti-Muslim sentiment is a perfect way to dress up bigotry in liberal clothing. Now conservatives call for limiting immigration because of Islam’s antipathy to gay rights and feminism—which they now claim to support, in contrast with backward Muslims! Islamophobia is an enormous boon to these forces, supplying them with an ostensibly politically correct rationale for their goals as well as access to previously unreachable voters.

Although Islamophobia is gaining ground at a disturbing clip, there are voices of reason among the political elites and civil society. They rightly emphasize that there is no monolithic Islam as such—it is preposterous, for example, to throw Iran-born political refugees with university degrees into the same pot as 1960s-era Anatolian guest workers, even though both are “Muslim.” And reducing all of Islam to its most radical factions only serves demagogues and obstructs integration. They point out that Islam is remarkably heterogeneous and dynamic, and includes an emergent European Islam that blends religion with modernity. Moreover, Europe’s integration of immigrants is actually far more successful than critics portray it, with their images of “parallel societies” and sinister ghettos.

A number of recent studies in Germany unequivocally refute anti-Islam clichés. They show, for example, that the vast majority of Muslims don’t see Islam as a political ideology and don’t define themselves foremost through religion but through social standing, regional origin and profession. Only about 7 percent are deeply religious and adhere to patriarchal traditions; these tend to live in ethnic enclaves, unlike their co-religionists. In Germany 98 percent of Muslims choose their own partners. Eighty-four percent believe in separation of church and state. The new studies corroborate other research showing that most of Europe’s 53 million Muslims (16 million in the EU) have lifestyles and concerns a lot like those of non-Muslim Europeans. The birthrate of successive generations of “German Turks,” for example, is approaching that of other Germans. Muslim groups have welcomed initiatives, like Germany’s Islam Conference, to bring Islam and European Muslims into the mainstream, as well as other positive steps to overcome the discrimination that, in part, accounts for European Muslims’ marginalization and lands many of them at the bottom rung of the social ladder.

Europe’s left in particular should be in a better position to critique Islamophobic discourse. This means a rethinking of knee-jerk laicism in light of new phenomena such as the desire of many women from Muslim backgrounds to wear a headscarf for reasons of ethnic or religious pride. Or, if the left is to insist on radical secularism, then it should apply the same critique to all religions. Why, for example, is Islam to blame when ethnic Turkish kids perform poorly in German schools, but not Catholicism when Italian migrants flunk out (which they do, in higher numbers than kids with Turkish backgrounds)? In the same vein, the rationale for exceptional behavior such as honor killings should be sought in the patriarchal traditions of certain countries rather than in Islam itself. Cultural racism, which legitimizes right-wing goals, is a complex phenomenon to decode, but it is the task of progressive forces to do it.

Policies like Switzerland’s ban on minaret construction (approved by 58 percent of voters in 2009) and veil prohibitions in France, Belgium and parts of Germany violate basic rights. Increasingly derogatory popular attitudes toward Islam and Muslims translate into workplace and schoolyard discrimination, which only increases tensions. Moreover, the mainstreaming of bigotry has created a new right and revived the old one: Austria’s Freedom Party, the Flemish Vlaams Blok and France’s National Front have renewed their fortunes by adopting Islamophobia. In last fall’s Vienna elections, the Jörg Haider–less Freedom Party nearly doubled its 2005 result, capturing 27 percent of the vote. Polls actually show the National Front’s new leader, Marine Le Pen, running ahead of Sarkozy for the 2012 presidential vote.

Of all the specters haunting Europe, none are as potent—or potentially disruptive to democracy—as Islamophobia. Though the economic crisis and budget slashing across the continent have certainly fueled anti-Muslim discourse, they are not chiefly to blame for Islamophobia. The goals and jingoistic assumptions at the core of the right’s agenda are essentially unchanged from the 1980s. The difference is that the left and liberals have largely capitulated, unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a constructive way.

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